Malaysia — On my Deepavali and Hari Raya rounds I was disappointed to find hardly anyone mentioning the haze, which just a few days earlier had been their bane, the focus of much pain and grievance. Well, a few factors could explain such amnesia. First, there were smoke-free skies over the Klang Valley. Second, there’s the Malaysian mudah lupa syndrome. And not least there’s the continuing Pak Lah-Che Det spat which has all the makings of a permanent feud a la Sri Lanka or Bangladesh.
Well, let’s stick to the haze even if it is less interesting. As is my practice, I had to look for some suitable quotes. I need not go beyond Shakespeare where I found a surfeit of goodies. So here are a few: “Foul-reeking smoke” (The Rape of Lucrece), “How hast thou injured both thyself and us!” (Henry VI), “Thou monstrous injurer of heaven and earth!” (King John) and “I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire” (All’s well that ends well).
The quotes are spot on in several respects. First, “Foul-reeking smoke” is a more accurate description of what we had experienced than “haze”. “Haze” is too slight, lenient and forgiving. The dictionary describes haze as “light vapour or greyness or smoke that slightly lessens vision”. So we should stop using “haze” to describe what is much more sinister and intolerable.
Second, Shakespeare evokes the element of injury, monstrous injury, of both heaven and earth, to us and to them (the injurer). Let us not mince words. The Indonesians with regularity cause us (and themselves) harm. Our life expectancy is reduced, those with bronchial problems are tortured, while air travellers face added dangers and disruptions. Tourism is badly affected while vegetables refuse to grow and palm oil production goes down.
Given its seriousness, the response of Malaysian and Asean leaders have been grossly inadequate and the results of their half-hearted efforts had been dismal. Every two to three years, we get the sense of deja vu, the replaying of an old videotape. First the skyline turns blurry, then the smell of carbon in the air and sediments on the car.
Asthmatics and the infirm begin to suffer. Then the bad stage comes, visibility is reduced, VIPs ship out before planes failing to find runways. Then the ritualistic response goes into gear. Malaysians get worked up, letters to the editors bloom, serious pleas are made to the Indonesians, even demonstrations in front of their legations. The Indonesians predictably come with a “combination” defence. We are a poor country, with poor farmers for whom the cheapest way is to burn. We are a large country with far flung islands, we have little control over our provinces.
Then comes the best defence: actually it is you greedy Malaysian loggers and planters who are major burners in our place. In the end the Indonesians will downplay their combination defence, making humble calls for neighbours’ understanding, while undertaking to take more serious and proactive efforts next year.
Meanwhile the monsoon has arrived, the burning has stopped and blue skies have returned. We are exactly at such pre-apathy stage at the moment. We have to put a stop to this cycle of uncontrolled burning and ritualistic response.
For a start we need to understand the burn cycle. Following a bad year we will have one to two years of clear skies. Such welcome change is not due to any creditable effort on the part of the Indonesian authorities. The burners have simply run out of flammable biomass and need time to accumulate some more. The time to act is during the clear sky years, when the biomass is being accumulated for the kill.
Ending this vicious cycle calls for really effective measures at the ground level. Concerted efforts at both the Indonesian and Malaysian/Asean ends are needed. Here’s my proposal:
The Indonesians, their small farmers, plantation owners, government leaders and administrators are primarily responsible for the burning and success in solving the problem lies with them collectively and individually.
First, adopt the Alcoholic Anonymous (AA)-cum-Oprah Winfrey methodologies. The crucial step in treating an addiction problem is to recognise and to admit that one does have such a problem. It is not enough to admit it in private. You have to make the declaration openly, in public and to say it out loud and clear as they do at AA meetings Ð “I am ___, I am a serial burner, I have a very bad problem, I will try to get out of my addiction. I need help”. A cure can only begin when we rid ourself of all denial.
Second, adopt and apply the Malaysian flood rescue scheme. It might seem odd to apply a flood response programme to a fire problem, so let me explain. Not many people realise that Malaysia’s annual flood response programme is highly effective. The success comes from the close cooperation and coordination of numerous government departments and agencies together with the participation of district administrators and local leaders.
The programme requires setting up of control centres at national, state and district levels. Relief facilities are identified beforehand, are supplied and equipped. Why can’t the Indonesians adopt a similar approach, organisation and coordination to face the expected, annual burn? Allocate responsibility according to area and by type of crop, of farmer, of biomass. Identify every possible source of burning beforehand. Establish response centres at every administrative level.
Third, training and education. Explain fully the damage caused by burning, introduce alternative land clearing methods and provide incentives.
Fourth, enforcement. Make directors of companies individually and severally liable for burning caused by their companies. Hold someone officially responsible for each piece of land. Impose guarantee funds on those with burn records. Make district administrators and village heads accountable for burns in their areas.
First, stop using the term “haze”. As mentioned, the phenomenon calls for a much more severe expression. Since we get particulates in abundance from Indonesia I would propose “dusmog”, an unholy mix of dust, smoke and fog.
Second, punish own country’s offenders who carry out burning in Indonesia. Make it an offence for Malaysians to commit burning anywhere in the world. And make company directors and senior managers personally liable for corporate burns. It might not be that difficult to nail Malaysian timber and plantation directors and managers responsible by using Google to identify burning sites.
Third, impose travel bans on Indonesian businessmen and company directors responsible for burning. The European Union has found travel bans to be an effective deterrent for human rights violators from outside the EU. Similarly apply such bans on our local burners as well.
Fourth, facilitate court actions against individuals and parties responsible for burning. Amend national laws and renegotiate international treaties so that local parties affected by Indonesian burning would be able to begin proceedings in Malaysian courts and judgments obtained be enforced in the Indonesian courts.
Fifth, institute better studies of the burn cycle so that we can be better prepared and not be perpetually caught by surprise. It is important to monitor the accumulation of biomass and to assess the preventive measures taken to control burning. The studies need to be done on a continuous basis.
Sixth, fully eliminate local burns. To be fair, Malaysians themselves had been guilty of abuse and negligence in their own backyard. Although Malaysian culpability is proportionally small, we should aim for 100% elimination on our part so that we do not provide unnecessary excuses to the Indonesians. We do need to better tackle our peat fires.
Finally, every year each Asean country should send a detailed bill to Indonesia citing all the damage and loss caused by poor visibility, dust inhalation and bad air. Citizen groups and government departments should be encouraged to submit their claims, properly documented and collated.
Whether the Indonesians would pay up is beside the point. What we would help to achieve is the constant reminder to a neighbour that their actions and inactions in respect of burning grievously affect theirneighbours.